Are you defrosting your meat properly? Here’s how to thaw a package of ground beef and protect yourself from food poisoning.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever thawed ground beef on the kitchen countertop, or if you’ve seen somebody you know do it at least once. It turns out that this is not only the wrong way of defrosting meat, but one that can also make you and the rest of the family sick with a foodborne illness.
It’s no wonder why so many of us home cooks thaw out meat wrong. While professional chefs are trained in this area in culinary school, cookbook authors and TV chefs rarely talk about food safety.
So let’s talk about the things you need to know to keep yourself and those you cook for safe the next time you thaw beef for burgers or a pot of chili.
How to Thaw Ground Beef
To thaw out a package of ground beef, refrigerate it for 12 to 24 hours, plunge it into a bowl of ice water for 15 to 30 minutes, or microwave it on the defrost setting for 3 to 4 minutes. Any thawing method other than refrigeration requires you to cook the meat immediately.
In the Fridge
How to do it: Transfer the package of frozen ground beef from the freezer to the bottom shelf of the fridge, where it’s coldest, a day in advance. Put the ground beef in a tray to catch the juices that run out as the meat thaws.
Mistakes to avoid: Avoid keeping ground beef in the fridge for more than 2 days or it will spoil. Because bacteria get introduced from the surface to the inside of the meat during grinding, ground beef goes bad faster than beef cuts do.
Why it works: Refrigeration slows down the growth of disease-causing bacteria and keeps ground beef safe for up to 2 days. It’s also the safest way to thaw out meats because you don’t expose them to the temperature range known as the danger zone, in which the bacteria double in count every 20 minutes.
In the Sink, in a Bowl of Ice Water
How to do it: Seal the frozen ground beef in a ziplock bag and submerge it in a bowl of ice water. Weight it down with something heavy, such as a pot filled with water, and let it thaw for 15 minutes. If it’s not completely thawed after 15 minutes, add ice to the water and thaw it out for another 15 minutes. Cook immediately.
Mistakes to avoid: Make sure the ziplock bag is airtight to prevent the water from getting to the meat. Do not leave the meat out and do not refrigerate it after it’s done thawing; for reasons of food safety, it must be cooked immediately.
Why it works: The cold, icy water in the bowl brings the ground beef to a temperature high enough to thaw, and yet low enough to inhibit the growth of disease-causing bacteria.
In the Microwave Oven, on the Defrost Setting
How to do it: Remove the ground beef from the package and place it in a microwave-safe bowl, or a plate deep enough to catch dripping juices. Microwave on the defrost setting for 3 to 4 minutes, flipping the beef every 60 seconds or so. Cook immediately.
Mistakes to avoid: Don’t defrost ground beef (or other meat, for that matter) at full power in the microwave. If your microwave oven doesn’t have a defrost setting, use 30% power instead.
Why it works: The defrost setting on your microwave cycles the magnetron, the part that generates the microwaves in the oven, on and off. The ground beef defrosts but doesn’t cook. For reasons of food safety, it must be cooked immediately.
How Not to Thaw Out Ground Beef
Never thaw ground beef on the kitchen countertop. It isn’t safe to leave meat out for more than 1 to 2 hours because the bacteria that cause food poisoning multiply the fastest at room temperature.
By the time the ground beef has thawed out, the meat will be overgrown with pathogenic bacteria that can cause food poisoning. The meat will remain unsafe to eat even after it’s cooked because heat will kill the bacteria, but not the toxins they left in the food.
In an article on the subject on its website, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service also advises against defrosting ground beef in hot water for the same reasons.
If you want to thaw out a package of ground beef quickly—as in less than 5 minutes—the only safe way is to microwave it on the defrost setting (or 30% power).